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Letters to the Editor

Guest column: ‘School choice’ has failed elsewhere; don’t try it here

New Education Dept. chief might weaken traditional public schools

When Donald Trump became our president-elect, we anxiously awaited what he meant by “Make America Great Again.” Now that he has identified most of his cabinet appointments, we are getting a view of the changes he has in mind.

He has nominated Betsy DeVos to head the U.S. Department of Education. Her beliefs about public education are clear from her statements and her actions. If she is confirmed, we have a good idea of the direction in which she will take our public schools.

Ms. DeVos has no teacher training, did not attend public schools, and did not send her children to public schools. She has stated that she believes that public school teachers earn too much money, and she is a firm believer in school choice.

The term “school choice” (charter schools and vouchers) can sound very appealing. Because we in the Sauk Valley have little experience with charter schools, I want to share a personal story about a teacher in a charter school.

The teacher was a student in my graduate-level teacher preparation class. That year (2013-14) she had 40 fifth-grade students in her class. She taught from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. with a brief break in the morning, afternoon and a short lunch.

The students had no art, physical education, music or recess. She taught from the beginning of August to the last week of June and earned a little over half the salary of a novice public school teacher in her school’s geographic area.

One day, a student in her class had a psychotic breakdown. He became verbally abusive and physically violent. The teacher was banned by school policy from calling 911. Only her director (principal) was allowed to do that.

She had to use her personal cellphone to reach the director. She called repeatedly for hours, but the director said she was too busy to come. Charter schools are not required to have nurses or social workers on staff, so the teacher had nowhere else to turn.

Finally, after 4 hours, the child was removed from the class and spent the next 2 weeks in a psychiatric hospital. When the child was released from the hospital, he returned to her class with no plan in place to prepare the student, his classmates, or the teacher for his return to the scene of such a traumatic day.

This is what school choice often means: bare bones educational programs with minimally trained, paid, and supported teachers. Other geographic areas have been experimenting with charter schools for years, and the results are clearly disappointing. Students in charter schools score no higher than public school students from the same demographic group.

I hope that teachers, members of the boards of education, and parents will continue to support our public schools and resist the urge to try a choice system that has already failed elsewhere. This is not the path toward change that was hoped for under this new administration. 

Note to readers: Sarah Bingaman, an adjunct faculty member at Sauk Valley Community College, is a retired elementary school teacher. She also taught at Dominican University in River Forest and College of DuPage.

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